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Sunday, April 28, 2013

Review: Doctor Who, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS

Series 7, Episode 11

Grade: B+
Verdict: An episode that returns to the concept of the "Dark" Doctor and centers around the TARDIS as a living entity concept, this time playing as a dark mirror of the universally hailed "The Doctor's Wife" episode. It's a clever conceit that fully explores the infinitum of the TARDIS and continues the trend of peak-form episodes for this second half of Series 7, marred only by a set of sub-par guest spots.

The concept of the TARDIS as a living being is one of the more fascinating conceits of the mythos of Doctor Who. The idea that the faithful ship that the Doctor travels in being a living being of its own has existed since the The Edge of Destruction serial in the very first season of the classic show, unfortunately this idea has only ever reappeared in fits and starts since. Obviously, the most recent example being the Neil Gaiman written "The Doctor's Wife" which portrayed the consciousness of the TARDIS as a Tim Burton-y caricature called "Sexy" that played as an erratic, yet incredibly faithful companion to the Doctor on his travels, even surmising the idea that rather than "he stealing her" she may have actually stolen him. In "Journey to the Centre..." we don't get a return to a physical being of the TARDIS consciousness, but Stephen Thompson's work is a perfect follow-on to the ideas that Gaiman fleshed out, but this time approaching the TARDIS less as a friendly device and more as a labyrinth of horrors, this shift is also reflected in the demeanor of the Doctor himself continuing the recognition that the two are a symbiotic pair.

The crux of the episode's plot mechanics are put into motion when the TARDIS is pulled into a Salvage Freighter, with the Doctor being flung out and the TARDIS undergoing serious damage in the process, and Clara being left behind in the wreckage. Once the Doctor has lured the Salvage crew onto his ship to avoid them from jettisoning the TARDIS (and Clara) into deep-space, we see a return to River Song's oft-mentioned adage "The Doctor lies", as the Doctor threatens the Van Baalen brothers and their android with possible destruction by activating the ship's self-destruct mechanism as a means to coerce the Brothers into assisting him with finding Clara. This is a style of manipulation that we haven't seen from the Doctor except during his Seventh Incarnation and during the tail end of the Tenth Doctor era, and it shows just what potential maddening ends his fascination/fixation on Clara is causing. This is course eventually shown to be a lie, but the manipulation itself still occurred. The actions of the Doctor in this episode not only put the crew in danger but also eventually leads to the death (albeit for a short period of time) of one of their members. The Doctor's somewhat erratic decision making has human costs. 

When The Doctor finally catches up to Clara, his relief is immediate, but eventually his concern about her true nature (which has been building throughout the entirety of this half of the series) bubbles forth when he confronts her about who she is with the pointed question, "Are you a trick, are you a trap?". Her response alleviates him and his more paternal-like instincts kick back in; he gives her a hug when he "recognizes" that she is just Clara and perhaps her appearance in other timelines is just a coincidence. This revelation seemed a bit tossed onto the fire that was building, and it will be interesting to see how purposefully that was done. By the episode's end, Clara asks the Doctor about his name, having seen it while escaping from the threat that was presented within the TARDIS and coming upon a book in the library entitled "The History of the Time War." He is quick to dismiss her curiosity with only a mildly threatening tone, but her own questioning and potentially even snooping continues to lend credence to the idea that perhaps Clara is of a more insidious nature than appearances might dictate. The Doctor's quickly growing erraticisms are something that may warrant keeping an eye on by the finale, which not so coincidentally enough is called "The Name of the Doctor".

To return to more immediate events, the actual threat of the episode continues Series 7's attempt at various genre styles, whereas last week focused on a haunted house/poltergeist theme, "Journey" had a few touchstones that weren't out of step with zombie films. Clara even mentions this comparison when she states "Good guys do not have zombie creatures...". The existence of the "zombies" is explained in a fairly satisfying way, as it turns out that they are a part of the on-going chaos occurring within the TARDIS: constantly looping hallways, deathtraps that are reminiscent of the film Galaxy Quest, and past and future versions of the characters being seen in corridors. It's the latter that describe the genesis of these zombie-like creatures. When the Doctor realizes that Clara and the Van Baalen Bros deaths in the Eye of Harmony (the engine that basically runs the TARDIS) create these creatures, his concern again revolves around Clara and is what eventually gives way to the eventual solution that gets all of out danger. The zombies themselves are well designed enough, clearly low-budget, but the camera work is cut in such a way that we don't get a chance to lose our disbelief in the threat being presented much like last week's episode with the creature in the pocket universe.

If there's any part of the episode that detracted from the experience it would have to be the subplot of the Van Baalen Brothers themselves. Played by Ashley Walters, Jahvel Hall, and Mark Oliver, the actual twist of their story, that the android is actually their amnesiac older brother that was made to believe he wasn't human out of jealousy, is moving enough, but the actors are sadly not up to the task of being able to carry this weighty material. As the past few episodes have had some incredible guest stars, this is a bit of a disappointment to say the least. Had the story ended in a more rote fashion, this deficiency may not have mattered as much, the series has had many terrible guest stars (Kylie Minogue, etc), but the final resolution was as dark as the rest of the episode and with the right performers it could have been a real series highlight, c'est la vie, it is the glaring flaw in an otherwise fun jaunt.

"Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS" ends with a reset button (again with the Galaxy Quest allusions), and generally this type of going back in time to erase the events of a disastrous moment would be an annoying storytelling device, but it's handled in a well planned way and its stakes aren't raised so high that the narrative re-do becomes the predicted conclusion. The reset button actually creates it own sense of pathos in that we lose Clara learning more about The Doctor (which will clearly be approached again, per the finale), but also that the Doctor comes clean with Clara and the potential ramifications that her knowledge of those deaths throughout time might have brought. It will be fascinating to see what, if any, memories linger with these characters, "wibbly wobbly" and all that. If the Moffat era of Doctor Who is able to make satisfying narrative closure out of a fairly worn out storytelling trope, then we truly are in the Golden Age of Doctor Who. The impressive stretch of great episodes continues, carry on Mr. Moffat!

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